Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 13: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness

After all the driving around we'd been doing, the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park seemed like a breeze - after all, the battlefields were so close to each other! We packed up in a slightly more leisurely manner, and arrived at the Fredericksburg Visitors Center. The very helpful park ranger there told us that if we really pushed right on until sunset, we could probably get all four battles done; unfortunately, we'd already made plans for dinner with a friend in Alexandria. We figured he was exaggerating and that we were pros at this after so many car tours.

As if we hadn't learned by now that Park Rangers always know what they're talking about when it comes to these things. By the end of the day, we were sprinting through the Wilderness and had to cancel our original plans to see Spotsylvania Court House, which was our only really big disappointment of the trip.

The Fredericksburg battlefield was probably the most poorly-conserved of all the battlefields we visited on the trip, for the simple and understandable reason that most of the town was destroyed during the battle - and they rebuilt. That said, the key portions were still there, and it was nice to get a good sense of them. The Park Ranger we chatted to about placing the 12th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg gave us a great overview of the battlefield strategy and why and how it didn't work out. The assaults on Marye's Heights were supposed to be diversionary, but ended up as the primary point of attack after the Union left wasn't reinforced in time to really push at the Confederate lines.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg; not quite sunken, but still highly defensible. Marye's Heights up and to the left.
Marye's Heights looking down; you can just barely see the line of the top of the stone wall at the edge of the sunken road.

The 12th Pennsylvania was part of the attack on the Union left. They stepped off from Slaughter Pen farm and marched across open fields, up to a particular railroad bed (that is still there!), then attacked Stonewall Jackson and the Confederate left flank. It was desperate fighting, and the sole Union division of Pennsylvania Reserves was surprisingly successful, breaching the Confederate lines, but they didn't have the reinforcements to follow through. I read in my regimental history while we were driving over to Prospect Hill that in this assault, Company C of the 12th Pennsylvania - which was Richard Gustin's original company, the Troy Guards of Bradford County, that he raised and was voted captain of - suffered 50% casualties.

The top of Prospect Hill, remnants of Confederate trenches.
Slaughter Pen Farm, with Prospect Hill in the distance.
Next up, Chancellorsville. Once again we ignored the Park Ranger's advice at our peril, which was to get lunch before we left Fredericksburg. Turns out there is pretty much nothing past a certain stretch of chain food and strip malls on the road to Chancellorsville. We were already running a bit behind by the time we got to Chancellorsville.

I feel like we didn't spend quite enough time appreciating Lee and Jackson's tactical genius at Chancellorsville, but the visitor center video did a good job of explaining it to us, and also comparing it to Gettysburg, shortly thereafter. The battlefield also had its share of iconic spots.

Site of Lee and Jackson's last meeting, where Lee directed Jackson to march quickly and roll up the Union right flank. He did so with enormous success, and Lee's strategy of splitting his army proved masterful instead of idiotic.
From this spot, and in this direction, Jackson rolled up the Union right flank.
However, Jackson was shot by North Carolina pickets while out scouting his next day's move. He was shot on the small dirt circle that can be seen in the foreground; his horse bolted through the woods and was caught by the road that is still there.
Jackson's arm was amputated, and rests in this peaceful little cemetery today. He died soon thereafter from pneumonia. Sadly, we didn't make it to the Jackson Shrine, aka the house where he died.

The Battle of the Wilderness was next, and here we could clearly see the strategies Ulysses S. Grant had learned in the western theater applied to the eastern theater. The battle itself was more or less a draw; Union forces held their ground, and fought Confederate forces to a standstill, inflicting heavy casualties on the smaller army. The big shift came, however, when instead of retreating to lick his wounds as all previous Union generals had done, Grant took decisive action immediately after the battle, marching on to Spotsylvania Court House and forcing Lee to follow him and fight another bloody battle that he could ill-afford.

The 12th Pennsylvania were once again at the Wilderness, with Richard in command. They were part of Crawford's division here, which found itself far forward of the Union lines in possession of some beautiful high ground. For whatever reason, they were refused reinforcements and had to draw back to Union lines and concede the high ground to the Confederates. Had they stayed, could they have turned the battle? It's tough to say, but apparently Crawford was furious at the time.

Following the path to where Crawford's division held high ground on day one of the Wilderness.
The thing I most remembered about the Wilderness was a particularly nasty episode that happened in thick brush and woods on the Union left. During a day's fighting, the heat from the bullets that went back and forth ignited dry leaves in the brush, and a large section of the forest caught on fire. Wounded men who hadn't been pulled back to their lines died horribly in the fire. I have to say, standing in this particular spot of woods was one of the eeriest moments in all of our visits to battlefields. I had a particular fear of fire as a child, and looking around, thinking about how peaceful and lovely the woods were today, and thinking of them filled with smoke and flame and thick underbrush and the screams of the dying gave me physical chills.

Woods that caught fire during the Wilderness.
At this point, we realized that we had no time to visit the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield, which was the battle almost immediately following the Wilderness, when Lee realized that Grant had moved quickly and decisively to seize the railroad junction at Spotsylvania.


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